I can come to your library, book club meeting, or conference to talk about how to help your readers find their next good read. Click here for more information.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

BPL Book Discussion: Crashing Through

On Monday, we began our 2012 run of book discussions at the BPL.  We began with Robert Kurson's Crashing Through.  From the publisher:
Mike May spent his life crashing through. Blinded at age three, he defied expectations by breaking world records in downhill speed skiing, joining the CIA, and becoming a successful inventor, entrepreneur, and family man. He had never yearned for vision. Then, in 1999, a chance encounter brought startling news: a revolutionary stem cell transplant surgery could restore May’s vision. It would allow him to drive, to read, to see his children’s faces. But the procedure was filled with gambles, some of them deadly, others beyond May’s wildest dreams. Beautifully written and thrillingly told, Crashing Through is a journey of suspense, daring, romance, and insight into the mysteries of vision and the brain. Robert Kurson gives us a fascinating account of one man’s choice to explore what it means to see–and to truly live.
One more thing before I get into the discussion.  There were no questions available to discuss this book online; however, my paperback copy did have questions in the back.  I used these as a guide and did add one specific question about how the author chose to recount May's story (more on that later).  If your group wants to do this book and you do not have access to the paperback edition, please contact me and I can copy the pages for you.

On to our discussion:

  • If you follow our book discussion reports you know the drill by now.  I began by asking who liked, disliked, and was so-so on the book.  We had 9 liked, 2 so-sos, and 0 disliked.
  • The so-sos mostly centered around May.  These two people liked the book, but couldn't get past the fact that May was too arrogant for them.  He was not someone they particularly liked as a person, despite the fact that they were intrigued by and completely respected him.  Particularly people were upset by how he treated his wife.  For example, more than once in their marriage, he asked her for a divorce because he didn't want to deal with the nagging and squabbles.  Others were turned off by his obsession with seeing beautiful women.
  • But, overall, people not only liked this book, they were riveted by it.  The combination of the science about how people see, the personal story of May (both his amazing accomplishments when blind and his courage to try to see after a lifetime of blindness), and the inspirational tone of the book were enchanting.  Interestingly, just about everyone was surprised by how much they enjoyed the book.
  • May's Mom: Lots mentioned here.  Some wanted more about her.  Others felt like she was a bit too risky with May.  She let him do the craziest things and always fought for him.  This allowed May to be blind but function easily in the sighted world.  We all agreed that we could never have been this way with our children.  But we respected her greatly.
  • We could barely talk about the needles May had to have to the eye in order to save the transplant from being rejected.  I get the willies just typing this.
  • We loved how Kurson integrated the science into the story.  The doctors Fine and Goodman were mentioned as being portrayed well.  We all also felt like this book and May's work with his doctors will help mankind and medical science for years to come; way past all of our lifetimes.
  • May made a list of pros and cons as to whether or not to try the surgery that could make him see again (but also could fail at anytime and the medicines involved could give him cancer).  His con list was VERY long.  But the pro list had 1 thing: curiosity.  May was curious to see what would happen.  Curiosity, taking risks, and pushing limits defined May throughout his entire life.  We talked about this.  Someone said, "Thank God for people like him who are always trying to find something new." We totally understood why he went for the surgery, but none of us felt we shared any of his risk taking abilities.  We also felt this curiosity also allowed him to  make his brain understand what he was seeing even when the doctors thought this would be impossible.  That part of the book, when May figures out how to see, was most people's favorite part of the book.
  • We passed around my iPhone to all look at the website for Sendero, May's company which invented and produces GPS systems for the blind.  There is also more information about May, this book, and his work as an inspirational speaker there. After so many failed inventions and start-ups were were glad to see that he finally had success at business.
  • We all were intrigued by the strength and personality of May's wife Jennifer.  She truly is a patient and understanding partner.
  • We spent some time talking about how the book was written.  Kurson seamlessly moves between the human interest story and the science.  He made the story very personal, but kept himself completely out of it.  We also appreciated Kurson's skill as a writer.  "He uses words very well," said one participant.
  • One of my favorite comments about the universality of this book, "We could all learn from Mike by asking ourselves "What am I good at?" especially when we get stuck."  This is how May tackled the problem of his vision not improving after the surgery.  He did not focus on what was wrong or what he was doing badly.  We all resolved to try to solve problems this way in the future.  We could all benefit by turning to our strengths in times of trouble, rather than dwelling on our failings.
  • We spent some time talking about the way Mike sees and how it is different from people who have had sight for their entire lives.  This was a long conversation, but I do want to mention how weird we found it that optical illusions (which we all thought were universal) do not work on May.
  • After reading this book we talked about how we now look at the world differently.  We all agreed that we are noticing more details.  One person even tried to walk around her house with her eyes closed.
  • As we wound down I pointedly asked the group if they would be willing to take the risks May did in order to see, especially considering how secure and fulfilled he was as a blind person.  A few responses: "To look into the eyes of your children is worth it." "Examining your partner's body was so romantic." "If I had been blind for life, I don't think I could have been able to imagine what it would mean to see, so no."  And, "I would not have taken the risk."
  • We moved to the title, which interestingly does not mention anything about being blind.  We loved  it because it describes May; he is a guy who always was crashing through.  We loved that it had a happy ending.  And finally, we decided this would be the perfect book for a coach to read and use to motivate his team.
  • And, for our grand finale as always, I asked the group to give me words or phrases to sum up the book:
    • inspirational
    • innovative
    • scientific
    • not-boring
    • thought provoking
    • engaging
    • exciting
    • heart warming
    • unstoppable attitude
    • motivational
    • ground breaking
    • informative
    • compelling
Readalikes:  There are many ways to go here.  A participant said that this book reminded her of the writings and essays of Indian-American Ved Mehta who lost his sight as a child and has since gone on to be a well known scholar.  She highly recommended his memoir, Face to Face.

NoveList suggested a few other books about being blind.  Eclipse by Hugh de Montalembert and Planet of the Blind by Stephen Kuusisto both look interesting.

However, as a group, while we found all of the information about being blind and how the brain takes what our eyes see to give us full sight, I would not say it was our main appeal.  Remember when I asked people to give me a single word or phrase about the book above?  Not a single person said "blind" or "sight" or "eyes."

So the true appeal of this book (for our group at least) lies in the writing and the inspirational story.

In terms of inspirational, Crashing Through reminded us of when we read, The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls.  Click through to see that report.

The group mentioned over and over again, how nice it was to learn so much about something technical and scientific wrapped up in a very readable and compelling story.  These comments made me think about other authors whose works also bridge the gap between the specialist and the average reader with compelling jargon free prose.  I have come up with the following list of suggested authors:
Finally, on a personal note, reading Crashing Through showed me once again why I so disliked 2010's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.  While both Skloot and Kurson spent countless hours with the families involved in these heart wrenching stories of medical miracles, Skloot put herself in the "story" of her book, while Kurson kept himself out of the story completely.  In fact, it was not until I read the "Notes" section of Crashing Through that I even knew he lived with the Mays for long periods of time in order to write this story, that is how natural the story flowed.

I mentioned this to the group, many of who read and enjoyed Skloot's popular book too.  Not many of them were bothered by this difference.  So, while I cannot say for me it was the case, I think these two popular medical memoirs are good readalike options for each other.

Finally, if you want to hear the interview between Kurson and May that is on the audiobook edition, click here.  It was recorded 7 years after the interviews in the book.  For audiobook fans, May spends some time talking about the appeal of a good audiobook toward the end of the interview also.

No comments: